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The Sattriya Treasures


The Sattriya Treasures
                                        Triggering the great Assamese renaissance
          The genesis of a great deal, if not all, of Assamese treasure of literature, drama and theatre tradition, music, dance and other art forms can be traced to the days of the great master himself, which sustained and grew under the tutelage of the sattras in the subsequent period of history.  Cinha Yatra, (a dramatic performance with illustrations) conceived, prepared and performed in 1468AD by the great master seems to be a masterstroke with far reaching ramifications. In fact, Cinha Yatra had proved to be a defining episode of history which sowed the seeds of the Assamese renaissance. The Kathaguru Carit and the Bardowa Carit say that Sankardeva organized a dramatic performance wherein he himself impersonated in many roles. Scenes were represented by paintings painted by the great master himself. His plan was to put up a grand musical and for this, Sankardeva innovated and created the musical instruments like the Khol and the Taal. Having set them into the aesthetic requirements of various melodies, also created for the same purpose, the great master performed for seven days to an awe stuck audience who had not seen anything like that before. The musical also started another hallowed tradition of mask-making and costume designing in addition to painting and illustration. Though no written script of the famed musical is available, Ramacarana in his Carit puthi claims that the performance had a written play with Anka and Sloka etc.
Paintings and Manuscripts
         A master painter himself, Sankardeva painted the scenes of the seven Baikunthas (heavens) on self made papers which served as a backdrop for Cinha Yatra. He is also said to have painted an elephant on similar paper with Hengul and Haital (vermillion and yellow arsenic) which was pasted on a  small casket for keeping the manuscript of Gunamala, a lyrical gist of the Bhagawata   prepared on the royal command of king Naranarayana. Mention is already made in the preceding chapters about the Vrindabani Vastra, the 180 feet long painting illustration of Krishna which the great master had commissioned. Taking the cue from the   hoary tradition, the sattras had used manuscript paintings as the major narrative form of visual art of Vaishnavite tradition that grew under the sattra patronage. The royal courts of the Ahom and Koch kings also provided the patronage. But the form shined with excellence in the premises of the sattras with sophisticated works like the Citra Bhagawata, Gita Govinda illustrations, Ananda Lahiri, Hastividyarnava etc. Citra Bhagawata, dated 1539 AD is said to be the earliest such work available.
          The manuscript paintings were primarily scribed on Sacipat folios prepared from the bark of the Agar trees. The manuscript painting of the sattras of Assam has a stylistic distinction of its own. Citra Bhagawata portrays the maneless lion and the Methun (Assamese bison) which are not only common in painting but also in sculptural and architectural designs. The illustrated Kirttana-Ghosa of Sankardeva, preserved in the Kathbapu Sattra of Jorhat is labeled a close companion to Citra Bhagawata. The Rangali Kirttana, preserved in the Madhava Atta Sattra of Nagaon is dated 1759 AD and appears to have impression of Rajput influence. There is a huge corpus of such paintings and illustrations in various sattras including the miniatures. Systematic effort for preservation of these invaluable properties has been put in lately through the Manuscript Mission undertaken by the Government.
Art and Artifacts
          The art and artifacts of the sattrasare indeed a vast ocean for scholarly exploration. Apparently, the great masters and the succession of the pontiffs of the sattras preferred wood, bamboo and cane to stone or brick for all kinds of accessories essential for regular sattra usage. These accessories were modeled or curved as beautiful pieces of art. The wood carvings which the sattras patronized the most are arches, door frames, holy thrones of lions, Garuda and peacocks, images of Krishna in various forms of playfulness and floral designs curved on posts. In addition, the beams of the naam-ghars, Sarai-safuras (Assamese trays), Thoga (lecterns) etc are common objects. The vast majority of the sattras also adorn the images of various deities like the gate keepers Jaya Vijaya, solemn figures of Vishnu, and the kneeling figure with folded hands of Garuda etc. The flourishing of this specialized craft in the sattra institution indicates a very special position given to a band of Khanikars or artisans. Over the years, these talented lots were also commissioned for services on the temporal arena which is evident in the carvings with the topics of hunting, buffalo fights, floral decorations on boats etc.  
            The wooden Simhasana or the holy lion throne is the most exquisite piece of Vaishnavite art combining painting, sculpture and sheer artistry in its design. The Simhasana is of one to seven tiers with four to thirty two numbers of maneless lions which stand on elephants painted and decorated in the typical sattriya style. At the top of the Simhasana, there is a wooden structure called the Amohi Ghar with an opening towards the front and a pointed roof on the top. This symbolizes the abode of the God represented usually by the holy  scripture, Bhagawata. The holy throne or the Simhasana is an essential structure kept and venerated in the manikut or the sanctum sanctorum. Dr Naren Kalita of Bardowa Sattra, who has done extensive research on the artifacts and the manuscripts, considers these treasures priceless with palpable affinity to both mainland India as well as other parts of south east Asia.
           The usage of masks is an integral component of the Bhaona, the Vaishnavite theatre tradition. Like the other art forms, this has also been a living tradition in many of the sattras. Masks are usually made for Gods and demons narrated in the dramas. Samaguri Sattra in Majuli and Khatpar Sattra of Sivasagar have developed special expertise in fine tuning the tradition. In addition, sattras are also the store house of wonderful metal works. Lamp stands, various utensils and implements of rituals and prayer are important examples of the same. Besides, the sattras maintain certain amount of leather works such as the diaphragms of percussions like Khol and Doba.
Drama and Music
       Evolution of the concept of Bhaona is another milestone of the great Assamese renaissance which Sankardeva brought about with elements of the popular rural theatre wedded to the classical Sanskrit tradition. The plays and play-lets(Ankiya naat and Jhumuras) composed by Sankardeva and Madhavdeva were essentially for dramatic presentation to be performed with total devotion as a distinct ritualistic observance.
       Writing Ankiya naats and organizing Bhaona had later become a bounden duty of the Sattradhikars and other sattra officialsin the sattras as a spiritual and intellectual vocation. For, this has been the time-tested medium to infuse into the minds of the common man the teachings of Vaisnavism.. But in doing so, the sattra savants infused high standard of creativity,  and   in the process, refined the taste and increased the sensibility of even the common unlettered people. As this process had become institutionalized over the centuries, finer nuances and refinements into the performance of Bhaona along with all its essential ingredients like music, dance and orchestration had taken these practices into a higher level of aesthetics.
      The Bhaona is performed in the sattra or the village naamghar, where an arena in the middle of the structure is earmarked with stylized bamboo barricading for performance. Hundreds of people of any caste, creed or religion sit around the arena inside the naamghar and so does the orchestra. The Sutradhara, is the common character in all the Bhaonas and he needs to be a man of multifarious talent with total command over the proceeding of the play. He has to dance, sing solo and lead the chorus and generally send across the messages inherent in a dramatic episode. All characters including Krishna, others of divine stature and even the villainous kinds bow to the Guru-asana and the audience while entering into the stage as the chorus showers blessings upon him. Masks (mukha)are used specially for super human forms like Brahma and incarnations of Vishnu like Narasimha(man-lion),Baraha(boar)etc. The demon masks of ten headed Ravana, Marich, Putona etc are quite popular. The costumes used are essentially indigenous which is evident from the all white costumes of Sutradhar with its trademark turban(paguri),long coat and a skirt(ghuri).However, external influences are certainly noticed in the present days’ costumes specially for other characters. The actors are chosen on the basis of training, physical suitability and general orientation. In the sattras, the general practice is that only male actors play female roles to prevent sensuality to take precedence over devotional aspect of Bhaona. However, a change in the traditional approach is discernable with girls playing female roles in the theatres of both sacred and the profane in the modern times.  Before commencing a Bhaona ,a fire arch with nine flames with cotton, soaked in mustard oil, held in two stands is placed at the entrance. This is called Agnigarh which represents nine forms of bhakti.
             Prior to the actual performance, the preliminary musical orchestration (gayan-bayan) begins with two groups of drummers and cymbalists playing concert while standing, sitting, moving in various directions and often dancing to rhythm. The preliminary ends with solemn musical dedication to the Gurus as well as the Ghosa-dhemali in which the musicians dazzle the audience by playing many khols(drums) while singing verses.
          Like the dramas, the music tradition in the sattras also evolved and sustained from the same treasure house of the   bhakti  legacy of the two great masters. Sankardeva and Madhavdeva both composed Bargit ,Bhatima and sanskrit verses of Ankiya Bhaona. These, along with Kirttanghosa and Totaka by Sankardeva and Namghosa by Madhavdeva are rich musical corpus for successive generations of the Assamese to revel. The corpus came to include in it the devotional lyrics by the later apostles and those by the Sattradhikars over subsequent period of several centuries. The same also includes a vast numbers of improvised melodies by the laity.
          The Bargits are set to a characteristic pattern of raga and tala (melody and rhythm).Based on Indian shastric tradition, they are higher forms of geets in their devotional, musical and literary virtuosity. For that, and to differentiate those composed by the great duo of Sankara and Madhava from the other ordinary compositions, the prefix bar(great) was appended by the devotees. Rendition of a Bargit begins with an alapa, locally called raag diya. Though these geets emerged from the Indian shastric tradition, they do not essentially conform to either Hindustani or Carnatic classical styles. The Bargits which emerged in the 15th century, are said to be closer to the prabandha giti ,the essential features of which were delineated by the famous Sarangadeva in his Sangitratnakara in the 13th century. The geets in the Ankiya naats find both ragas and talas specified, while the manuscripts of the other geets mention only the ragas. A total number of thirty two ragas are found in rendition of Bargits, while ten numbers of talas are found in the Ankiya naats. Dr Pradipjyoti Mahanta,  noted scholar of the tradition, has identified forty five numbers of talas in extensive application in different sattras of Assam.
       The kirttana is a choral performance where the namacharya or the choir leader sets the refrain in the form of a ghosa which the participants numbering from five to five hundred repeat in the same tune and rhythm. There are many musical variations in this community singing with the leader changing notes to the vigorous playing of the bhortaal(big cymbals),supported by measured clapping by the holy assembly. The naam ghosa is also sung in similar manner; they have to be rendered as per the tunes which are found divine by an average Assamese.    
Sattriya Dance
       Like the other art forms, the Sattriya dance had also emerged from a 500-year-old tradition. Sankardeva’s plays, coupled with the play-lets called Jhumuras of Madhavdeva, underlined an essential element of artistic dance forms with histrionic embellishment of a very high order. Various dramatic sequences in the dramas enumerated by Sankaradeva, find their expression through these dances. In Bhaona, these dances may be classified as Dhemalir nac (dance of preliminaries), Suttradhari nac (dance of the coordinator), Bhawaria pravesar nac (entrance dance of the dramatis personae), Yuddhar nac (war dance ), Gitar nac (dance with song), Bhangi nac (other dances) etc. Madhavdeva, later introduced some new numbers which are independent of the dramatic frame. This paved the way for the later apostles for novel choreography on the basis of the framework already created. Madhavdeva thus created Cali, Jhumura and Nadubhangi nac.
Sattriya Dance: The Term
         With the spread of the great bhakti tradition, especially through a well organized structure of the sattra institutions, the faithful thronged the sattras. Here, they found heightened devotional fervour in their way of life through a recourse taken to pursuit of dance and music, skillfully inherited by the teachers and passed on to generations. Over the ages, the pursuit had acquired palpable distinctiveness—developing in the process, its large repertory—including grammar, footwork, stylized expressions and hand gestures etc. Thus, it was the sattra which ensured survival and extension of this art form. Sattras were also the custodian as well as the repository of its grammatical formulae albeit in an oral tradition and had been the final arbiter. Therefore,  the nomenclature—Sattriya-nrittya.
      Curiously, there was a vehement campaign to term this form of dance as Sankari, created by Sankaradeva. But the regional authority, namely the Assam Sangit Natak Akademi, described it a sattriya, or belonging to the sattras, thereby validating the centrality of the sattras in its sustenance, nurturing and keeping it a ‘living tradition’. Thus the terminological logic makes space for the evolution of the form with recognition of the contributions made by the later devotees.

        This dance form is not known to have subscribed consciously to the set paradigm of the other classical dance forms in India. Teaching and learning has been through oral transmission and through a process of enculturation through which celibate   monks internalize various nuances of the dance as part of their way of life. Only one text of circa 16th Century AD, Subhankar’s Hastamuktawali, written in Sanskrit with Assamese renderings, is known to be a treatise on dance in Assam.
            Sattriya dance was born from the womb of the Ankiya Bhaona. They are characterized by portrayal of various roles through a detailed illustration of varied expressions and finer feelings of characters ranging from the kings, demons and the God to the feminine persona of different kinds. So, abhinaya, an expressional system using the face, the body and other micro features along with stylized application of relevant hastas is an integral part of Sattriya dance. As a natural offshoot of the Ankiya Bhaona, abhinaya—with hastas and elaborate footwork performed to grammar-laden rendering of poetry and songs with various dress and décor, is an essential component of the dance form. However, the same has not been always in application in the routine prayer sessions in the namghars of the sattras although dances are important components in such sessions.
          The Sattriya dance is performed to a well established system of rhythm. The orchestra primarily consists of the Khol, the percussion (bayan), with taal (cymbal). Flute and violin have entered into the ensemble only recently. The venerated Bargits ,other lyrical compositions in addition to the geets written for the twelve plays of both Sankardeva and Madhavdeva are the basic musical corpus to support the dance form. Additionally, the lyrics composed by the later apostles focusing on the dance forms resulted in new additions and improvisation in the repertoire of melodies and the presentation style.   
         Certain kinds of the sattras follow the practice of bringing children at the tender age of 5-7 years. They are acculturated into the monastic order by a well drawn out system of daily routine and rituals under the supervision of senior monks taking up responsibility for individual child as the foster fathers. In the process, the children come to learn various aspects of sattra discipline, including the performing arts of music, dance and drama. After judging varying degree of their proficiency, the young boys are put under the training of adhyapaks (teachers) in various disciplines inside the sattra.
 At the end of several years of training, including assessments after public performances in various sattra festivities, the sattra seniors, including the sattradhikar (the head of the monastery), confer the titles of Gayan (singer) and Bayan (player of instruments) to the trainees. Though the adhyapak is the ultimate teacher commanding both spiritual and temporal allegiance of the disciple, he is often put under guidance of other adhyapaks to hone up specific skills also.
         Noted connoisseur of the dance form, Raseswar Saikia Borbayan writes, “the training in Sattriya dance is carried out through a rigorous syllabic process based on ground exercises called mati-akharas. Some of the mati-akharas are meant as fitness exercise, while some form components of various dance postures. Thus the mati-akharas are the basic grammar of the Sattriya dance without which nobody can learn the art form perfectly.”
         The grammar in the Sattriya dance is not found to be in written form. It is verbally handed down to generations although attempts have been made in recent years to prepare formal grammar. The mati-akharas were earlier taught just as physical training. However since 1967, Saikia was instrumental in associating instrumental music (Khol) in the training of these mati-akharas for the sake of adding an aesthetic touch to the exercises themselves. It is now established that there are 64 numbers of such mati-akharas traditionally prevalent in the sattra. Dr.Jagannath Mahanta of Jorabari Sattra, Sivasagar had done extensive research on the grammar of this dance form in his doctoral thesis--thereby helping to evolve the basic guidelines in written form.  
            The sattra tradition does not seem to refer to any of the known treatises as the sources of its stylized hand movements. However, the Natya-shastra and others like Abhinaya darpana, Sangitratnakara, and Srihastamuktavali, seem to have bearing on the formation of different kinds of hastas (hands). Even the local folk and tribal traditions had influenced introduction of some of the hastas. . According to Dr. Jagannath Mahanta, study of the application of the hastas indicates certain amount of adherence to the treatises while sometimes it appears to be guided by traditional precepts and practices. The actual practices always do not tally with the descriptions of the treatises or even if they do, they carry different names more often than not.  Gestures made by hand during a classical dance recital play a pivotal role not only to enhance decorative beauty of a performance but also to drive home certain amount of interpretative aspects. Hand gestures in Sattriya, like in the other Indian classical dance forms, are fruitful media of expression of the ‘innate’ acting as a complementing tool in presenting a particular kind of situation or objects both substantive and metaphysical. Intricate footwork which characterizes all classical dances of India is also very prominent in the Sattriya dance forms. The footworks, quite typical to this form, are used to determine the basic stance, rhythmic patterns, stylized movements etc. A large number of footwork is also positively inspired by the treatises and they have no local names.
          The Sattriya dance was declared as one of the major Indian traditional dance forms by the Sangeet Natak Academy, the National Academy of Music, Dance and Drama on 14th November, 2000, thus recognizing the classical essence of the dance form. Ever since, its popularity has soared to new heights, especially in the secular platforms. There has been noticeable spurt in the instances of granting recognitions by the Government bodies for contributions of the maestros to the dance form. Since the relevance of the sattras appears to be on the wane in respect of their social standing and economic sustainability with rapid   urbanization, many adhyapaks and maestros are found to be continuing with the teachings also outside the precincts of the sattras. While the connoisseurs and the masses are found to be thronging the auditoriums in cities to witness the Sattriya dance recitals of the maestros, seasoned disciples and the neophytes, the living tradition faces a varying degree of challenges ranging from the tendency on the part of some practitioners to dilute the basics for want of time or patience to go through the rigours of the detailed training to acts of perhaps too many experimentations in too short a time by some artists.   




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